My definition of algorithmic art

I was over at the Wikipedia recently, curious about what the state of their pages on fractal art and other algorithmic things was. It was rather encouraging but also a little confusing. I’ve spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to understand these sort of computer art topics so when I get confused when reading about basic definitions and categories it makes me stop and think some more.

I get the feeling that “art made with computer generated imagery” (not CGI as in movies) is becoming a little more well known and mainstream and the proliferation of definitions on the Wikipedia shows this. I have gained what I think is a good grip on a meaningful category of computer art so I offer its definition because I think it helps to understand it. It helps me, so why not others like me?

When I say “algorithmic art” I’m talking about art made with computer programs that draw automatically, without human involvement, using algorithms rather than computer drawing tools for computer artists. My kind of “algorithmic art” might include some hand-made touches and modifications that make them “mixed media” in some people’s ultra scientific taxonomic minds, but the critical ingredient is imagery that comes from algorithmic expression rather than human expression. The mechanical “touch” is what algorithmic art focuses on for me.

Algorithmic artists then, use programs like fractal programs or applications that employ other kinds of algorithms, like cellular automata, iterated function systems (IFS), or even just photoshop filter effects and transformations. The main thing is that the imagery, for the most part at least, is not hand made and depicts the creativity of the algorithm used and not the drawing skill and imagination of the artist.

Fractals are the most common form of algorithm used in algorithmic art but they aren’t really any more distinctive than any other form of algorithm as far as what the imagery looks like is concerned. I don’t regard fractal art as a distinct form of algorithmic art because their expression of the essential ingredient in algorithmic art, the mechanical “mind”, results in imagery that has the same artistic interest and purpose as any other algorithmic form.

Including clouds! Clouds are a form of algorithmic art but not, obviously, a computerized form. Clouds are formed by automatic processes that follow rules, ie. algorithms, and not by human manipulation or creative involvement. Interestingly, fractal geometry came about as an attempt to explain natural phenomena like clouds, trees and other natural shapes and not originally to create an art form. Fractal formulas (algorithms) create very broad and wide-ranging types of imagery and in the context of visual art don’t warrant a distinct grouping because their appearance isn’t distinct enough. They look like a lot of other algorithmic art.  Or maybe it’s just me.

The key ingredient in algorithmic art then is mechanical creativity rather than intelligent, thoughtful, human creativity. It’s the machine thing that gives algorithmic art it’s distinctive appearance and appeal so it makes sense to me to define it by that characteristic since it’s the one responsible for its artistic traits.

Much of the “automatism” used by surrealist artists like Max Ernst like rubbings of rough surfaces, smoke patterns and squished paint imagery, looks like fractal art and other forms of algorithmic art because they feature non-human (non-thinking, mechanical) imagery. It was the non-human “look” that the surrealists were after because they thought it inspired and provoked the unconscious mind of the viewer in ways that the hand-made imagery of an artist, another person like themself, didn’t. Non-human imagery had a special weirdness to it that was surreal just like the surrealist works that they also painted by hand using their own graphical skill and imagination.

The weirdness comes from the algorithms and it doesn’t much matter what particular type they are. As long as the artwork features that weirdness of mechanical creativity, any hand made alterations and additions by the artist don’t change its algorithmic art categorization to me. Photo backgrounds, overlays or whatever, aren’t important taxonomic considerations as long as the algorithmic weirdness persists in the image.  Its a subjective classification and one has to judge it for themself just like many art categories like impressionism and cubism.  It’s a judgment call but there are objective criteria, if “mechanical weirdness” is something that can be objectively identified, that is.

So, that’s my definition of algorithmic art and I think it’s the most sensible and practical one. The others I find are just intellectual constructs and over abstractions but they probably serve good purposes in those sort of contexts like journal articles and science-oriented art exhibitions. I’m just interested in looking at pictures. Algorithmic art is a much simpler thing for me.